Book Review: A Thousand Splendid Suns – by Khaled Hosseini

If you check my Ratings Key for 4-star books here is what you find:

  • Must read
  • Inspiring
  • Classic
  • Want to read again
  • I learned profound lessons
  • Just beautiful
  • I cried

A Thousand Splendid Suns checks all these boxes.

In addition, reading it now is extremely timely, given the recent departure of the United States from Afghanistan on August 30, 2021.

We hear the story from the perspective of two young women, girls at first, in alternating chapters.

Mariam was born in 1959 in Herat in western Afghanistan, the cradle of Persian culture. She is an illegitimate child of one of the richest men in the city, Jalil. He has three wives and nine legitimate children among them. They all live in one large mansion as a happy family. Mariam and her mother, however, live in a hovel he had built for them a couple of miles out of town, up a steep hill, away from the city, and away from his “respectable” life. But he apparently loves Mariam enough to come and visit her once a week and spend quality time with her. She grows up into her teenage years loving and adoring her father, not knowing any better that life could be different. One day she walks to the city without permission, arrives at her father’s house and quickly finds that there is indeed a difference between her and her other siblings. Within just a few days, at the age of fifteen, she is married off to a middle-aged man in Kabul, Rasheed. Despite per protests, Rasheed takes her with him and her life changes drastically. Rasheed is a brute of a man who thinks nothing of beating a wife with a belt until she bleeds.

A few houses down the street from Mariam and Rasheed lives a young family with a little girl named Laila. There are two older brothers. Laila’s father is somewhat of an outsider in the neighborhood. He is an intellectual, a teacher, who loves his books and cherishes education, even for a girl. Laila grows up in a loving, albeit poor, family. Her best friend is Tariq, a neighborhood boy who is two years older than she. Laila’s older brothers go to war against the Soviets and eventually both die for the cause. Laila’s mother is so shaken, she becomes morose and sickly. Eventually, a stray rocket hits their house. Laila is the only survivor but severely wounded.

Rasheed and Mariam rescue her, and promptly, Rasheed decides to take Laila as a second wife, against Mariam’s will. This stroke of fate puts the two women, a generation apart, into the same household under the boot of a severely abusive man.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is about the devastating abuse and systemic destruction of women in a regime and society where a few theocrats have absolute power over the lives of millions of people. It is also about the history of Afghanistan, starting in the 1960s and through about 2007. It describes the years before the Soviets invaded the country in the 1980s, their eventual defeat, the rise of the Mujahideens, their devolution into bands of warlords bent on destroying their own country for personal gain and power, and finally the rise of the Taliban, pre-Osama bin Laden. It illustrates in vivid detail what the Taliban, basically a bunch of uneducated goat-herders and religious fanatics, did to their own country and most importantly, to 50% of their population – all the women. We witness the hardships of women under that regime, and then, as we all know, the post 9/11-years as the American’s supposedly liberated the Afghans from the Taliban. Things started getting better again in the country and people’s lives started to improve.

That is where A Thousand Splendid Suns ends. There was hope. There was light again for girls and women.

The bitter, brutal irony is that I read this book not in 2007 when it came out, but fifteen years later, now in 2023. I know that the Americans left the country under very adverse conditions for the Afghan people. I know that the country fell into the hands of the Taliban again within days of America leaving, and I know, from reading A Thousand Splendid Suns what happened to the Afghans – again.

It’s easy for us to make decisions about how we feel about Afghanistan being a world away. Reading A Thousand Splendid Suns is crushing, challenging, and most of all thought-provoking. We didn’t do anything new to Afghanistan. We were just another invader in the revolving door of systematic subjugation of a nation and its people, a nation that could not be defeated by two superpowers in two generations, but a nation that also hasn’t figured out how to live and prosper on its own.

The Afghan people are not to be blamed. The sick interpretation of Islam and the fact that an entire nation is willing to subjugate itself to its dogma is at the root of the problem. And that is exactly why there should never be any connection between politics, government and church, any church at all.

Reading this book, I realize that through my entire lifetime on this planet, the people of Afghanistan have suffered, badly suffered, and there is no end in sight even now.

Movie Review – The Woman King (2022)

I like a movie best when it makes me think, and even more, when it makes me research afterwards.

In Smithsonian Magazine, I found an article about the Agojie, which starts out with this paragraph:

At its height in the 1840s, the West African kingdom of Dahomey boasted an army so fierce that its enemies spoke of its “prodigious bravery.” This 6,000-strong force, known as the Agojie, raided villages under cover of darkness, took captives and slashed off resisters’ heads to return to their king as trophies of war. Through these actions, the Agoije established Dahomey’s preeminence over neighboring kingdoms and became known by European visitors as “Amazons” due to their similarities to the warrior women of Greek myth.

Dahomey was a kingdom on the south coast of West Africa, approximately in the southwest area of today’s Nigeria. Throughout its history, starting in the 1600s, the kingdom was instrumental in its role of supplying slaves to European and later American slave traders.

The Woman King is inspired by true events in the 1825 timeframe. The female warriors of the Dahomey kingdon were called the Agojie. They were highly trained, fierce and skilled warriors. The army of women numbered in the thousands and essentially ruled the entire area for centuries.

The Woman King depicts the life of General Nanisca (Viola Davis). She leads her army with an iron will, as she trains the next generation of recruits. While the historical background is real, the individual stories are fictional. Yet, the plot is highly emotional and gripping, and it presented me with a view into the lives of Africans during the period of colonization by the Europeans and the exploitation of the black people. I usually thought about slaves being captured in Africa by traders and hauled across the sea. This movie shows that it was way more complicated than I ever realized, and how the African nations were complicit in the destruction of their own social fabric. You cannot sell your own people to the  world as slaves and maintain a thriving nation at home.

The movie tells a powerful story and it puts things for Dahomey into a much better light than the realities of history actually were. Read the article in the Smithsonian I quoted above for rich detail, about the country, its kings, and the Agojie.

The fighting scenes are extensive, brutal and graphic. There were many times when I had to close my eyes. While there is a lot of death and destruction, it is never shown as graphic blood and gore. It just makes your imagination create it.

Viola Davis has won many acting awards, including an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in Fences which I predicted when I wrote my review in January 2017. Let me make another prediction: She’ll win the Oscar for best leading actress for The Woman King.


Book Review: Dylan and Me – by Louie Kemp

Louie Kemp was 11 years old when he was at summer camp in northern Wisconsin. There was another 12 year old boy with a guitar by the name of Bobby Zimmerman from Hibbing, Minnesota. Along with a third boy, Larry Kegan, the three became best friends, for life.

Louie Kemp had unparalleled access to Bob Dylan, starting in their youth when Bobby already knew that one day he’d be a rock ‘n roll star. They were best friends throughout their lives. Louie tells anecdotes from their childhood on through Bob Dylan’s early years that bring the musician’s elusive and almost reclusive life to light. Most of the substance of the book focuses on the years of the Rolling Thunder Review, which Louie produced for Dylan at his request. He tells some backstories of the makings of Blood on the Tracks and Desire. Much of the narrative focuses on the 1970ies, when Dylan did some of his best work, went through his Christian transformation and then back to his Jewish roots.

I have read other Dylan biographies over the years, but this one was the most enjoyable. It’s not a biography, it’s a best friend telling the story of his youth and younger years, providing insight into the formation of a music legend, and doing it simply by telling little stories and vignettes that shed some light on the person we all know as Bob Dylan, but just Bobby to Louie Kemp.

Book Review: The Lincoln Highway – by Amor Towles

In 1954, Emmett Watson at age 18 is released from a juvenile work farm in Salina, Kansas after serving fifteen months for involuntary manslaughter. His mother had abandoned the family many years before. His father was a failing farmer. He had passed away, and the farm was in foreclosure. Emmett came home to the farm just to pick up his 8-year-old brother Billy, and his baby-blue 1948 Studebaker Land Cruiser, and make his way to California to start a new life.

However, two of his teenage friends from the work farm escaped and ended up joining them. The trip Emmett thought he was taking ended up turning into a completely different direction.

The Lincoln Highway is a novel that is structured unusually. The author took some risks by doing that. For instance, it has 10 chapters and it starts with chapter 10, and then works its way down to 1 as the book progresses. That’s unusual and strange, and if it did anything to help the story, I’d say that’s ok. But I could not find anything that made a difference, so why did he do that?

The chapters are divided into subchapters, each told from the perspective of a different character. Two of the characters, Sally and Duchess, tell the story in the first person from their own perspective. The other chaperts were told in the third person by an outside narrator. I also don’t understand why he did that, since it too didn’t add value to the story. It just made it read “odd.”

Emmett Watson is the main character. He is a person of solid values, honest, responsible and remarkably well organized and calm.

Billy Watson is Emmett’s 8-year-old brother, and probably the smartest of the whole gang.

Duchess is an 18-year-old youth who was abandoned by his father, a washed-out actor and drunk, when he literally sold him out to the authorities for a bauble, a golden watch he stole off a dead man, and had him sent to the juvenile facility when he was 16.

Woolly is a trust fund kid raised in a New York old money family. He has some type of autism and needs strong medication to remain functional.

Sally is the daughter of Emmett’s neighbor, who took care of Billy while Emmett was locked up and his father had passed.

Every one of the characters is well developed, and as the story progresses over a period of just 10 days, we get to know each one of them, and their lives in America in the 1940ies and 1950ies.

Sometimes I had to laugh out loud, and many times I was sad about the depth of the human tragedy and the realization that every human being has a completely different story to tell, a different set of memories, and a different character that developed from a string of endless moments that eventually brings them to this very point in life.

The Lincoln Highway is going to be an American Classic.

Movie Review: CODA (2021)

Alright, before I get into the movie itself, it’s important to note that CODA is a “highly decorated movie” with three Oscars.

First, it won Best Picture of the Year, and by doing so it became the first movie produced by a streaming service to win Best Picture. This is an Apple Original Film, which by itself boggles my mind. I still remember when Apple became a company in 1976. Who would have thought that the company would eventually become the most valuable company on the planet – and, as a computer company, it would produce Oscar-winning movies?

Second, it won Best Adapted Screenplay by Sian Heder.

And finally, Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role for Troy Kotsur, who is also the first ever deaf actor to win an Oscar.

And boy did he win that Oscar, alone for the “my balls are on fire” scene at the doctor’s office.

I watched this movie on the airplane from London to New York, starting about two hours into the flight. The windows were all darkened, I sat in a window seat in the exit row, headphones on, and I was outright crying during the ending scene, when Ruby, the lead, sang Clouds From Both Sides Now in the ending scene. The man next to me was into his own movie and so I had my privacy. After wiping my eyes dry when it was over, I pulled up the window shades and looked down on the clouds of Greenland – from above.

I didn’t know what CODA was all about when I picked the movie, I just knew it had won awards. I also didn’t know what CODA even meant, until I actually did the research to write this review now. It means “Child of Deaf Adults.”

Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing person in her family. Both her parents and her brother are completely deaf. They operate a fishing boat. Ruby goes out with them early in the morning, they bring in their catch, they take it to the market, where Ruby leads a key role as the family’s communicator and negotiator, all before she gets ready to go to high school.

While life as a fishing family is hard, not only brutally hard and dangerous work on a boat, but also hard to make ends meet in a fickle market, the Rossi family is happy. The parents are madly in love and can’t seem to keep their hands off each other. They have wild sex in their bedroom with no thought to the fact that Ruby can hear the ruckus all over the house.

But what could Ruby possibly be interested in for her own life that is about as far removed from the appreciation of her family as it can get? Ruby has a passion and great talent for singing. Her parents need her on the boat and for the family business, and Ruby wants to pursue a life, passion and career that they can’t even comprehend, let alone appreciate?

So here you have it all, a powerful story, an emotional subject, a clash of cultures, and world-class acting – yes, a deaf man acting as a deaf man. It does not get any better than that.

I have seen clouds from both sides now….

Movie Review: The Nightingale (2018)

The Nightingale is one of the most difficult movies to watch that I can remember. There are several brutal and humiliating rape scenes, as graphic as they can get. Depiction of human depravity and lawlessness is so overwhelming, it took a lot out of me just watching this film.

The story plays in Tasmania, the large island south of Australia, in 1825, just before the infamous Australian Black War. Race tensions between the Aboriginals and the Whites are at the breaking point. They are outright killing each other. Prejudice is rampant. Many of the white Australians are convicts from England serving their sentences. The idea was that once the sentences are served, they are freed, albeit on the other side of the world in a nightmarish wilderness. In those years in England, you could get arrested for stealing an apple in a market, and convicted and shipped off to Australia for a sentence of many years.

The British class system, which separated the officers, the “highborn,” from the rest of humanity which had pretty much no rights at all, allowed abuse of power on an institutionalized scale. If you were a convict in Australia in those ages, you were at the very bottom of humanity.

Clare is a 21-year-old Irish convict woman. She has a loving husband and an infant child. She works as a servant at a military outpost in Southern Tasmania, and her assignment is under a British lieutenant named Hawkins. She has served her sentence, but he won’t let her go. Hawkins is a sadist and ruthlessly abuses everyone around him of lower rank. He rapes Clare in front of her husband. Then he has the husband and her baby killed as she lay bleeding. Hawkins and his cohorts leave for the north where he believes a Captaincy awaits him in the town of Launceston.

With nothing left to lose, Clare enlists the help of an Aboriginal tracker named Billy to follow Hawkins. Along the way, Clare and Billy slowly come to trust each other as they overcome their mutual prejudices and racial hate, and as they learn about each other’s traumatic past.

Claire seeks revenge without a plan. Billy wants to be left alone and live with his family and ancestors in his homeland. But their path is on a collision course with utter disaster.

Book Review: Project Hail Mary – by Andy Weir

A man wakes up from a coma. He can’t remember who he is, where he is, and why he is there. He is tended to by a robot. He has a scientific mind, and he gradually figures out he must be in a spaceship, since the gravity is 1.5 g, which he determined by timing dropped objects. He is alone. The two companions with him on the ship are long dead and mummified. He figures out he was in an induced coma, probably to escape the boredom of a long journey.

But it gets much worse. After some observations of the stars around him, and the sun, he realizes that the sun is actually not the sun but some other star. Now he knows he is in trouble. The nearest star to the solar system is more than 4 lightyears away, so it must have taken decades to get to where he is. Decades alone in a spaceship.

Gradually, as his memory returns bit by bit, vignette by vignette of flashbacks, he learns his name is Ryland Grace, and he is a scientist sent on a one-way mission to investigate a solution to an existential problem at home: The sun is being drained of energy and the earth is rapidly cooling, Not only does he have to somehow survive alone, lightyears from home, his mission is actually to find a solution to save humanity and transmit his results back via high speed probes. It’s an impossible situation.

Andy Weir, who burst into the science fiction world with his first novel The Martian (which I reviewed here) has done it again. Project Hail Mary is one of the best and most satisfying science fiction stories I have ever read. Andy Weir’s stories play in today’s world, or in the very near future, perhaps just a few years off. All the technology in his stories is our technology today. There is Google and Facebook, there are laptops and iPhones. In near-earth orbit there is the good ol’ ISS. That’s the stuff Andy Weir’s science fiction is made of. He writes as the narrator in the present tense, which gives the story a feeling of rapid action.

Project Hail Mary is a page-turner that kept me riveted to the very end. It gets a solid four stars.



*** Spoiler Alert ***

I recommend that you do not read beyond this point if you intend to read the book. You should read it first, and then come back here to find out some of the reasons why I think this is one of the best science fiction stories ever, and I’ll also talk about some of the plot holes or flaws of the story (there aren’t many).

By astronomical observations and triangulations he figures out he is at the star Tau Ceti, which is about 12 lightyears from earth. Tau Ceti turns out to be the only star in the local stellar neighborhood that is not afflicted by the energy loss that the sun experiences. All other stars are also dimming. But here it gets interesting. An alien space ship approaches him and starts interacting with him. On board is an alien that is the most interesting, in my opinion realistic and credible alien life. My bone to pick with alien stories is that the aliens are too humanoid, usually about the size of a human, and suited to be in the same atmosphere. This alien comes from a planet in the 40 Eridani star system, which is 16.5 light years from earth. Grace calls them Eridians. The aliens resemble large spiders, the size of a medium-sized dog, with a carapace of about 18 inches in diameter and about 10 inches high. It has five arms, each with “hands” that have three opposing claws. They use the arms or legs interchangeably. They have no eyes and no sense of vision, since their planet is pitch black due to a very thick atmosphere of ammonia. The pressure on their planet is 29 times that of earth. It would crush a human instantly. Their body temperature is 210 degrees Celsius or over 400 degrees Fahrenheit, so extremely hot. Imagine a creature that lives in 29 atmospheres of pressure with a body temperature of twice the boiling point of water, that breathes pure ammonia. There is no way such a creature would be able to survive a minutes in our world. And likewise, we’d burn up within seconds on theirs, and be crushed by the pressure and gravity.

The aliens have no vision, and all communication is via sound and echolocation, similar to whales. When Grace meets the alien, they quickly establish a way to communicate and learn each other’s languages. Over weeks, they build a sufficient mutual vocabulary to actually communicate productively. That done, they get to work on solving the existential problems of both their home worlds.

Some of the problems I had:

The Eridians do not know about radiation. They have no vision. There is no light on the surface of their planet. So how did they ever develop astronomy and space travel?

The technology of the Eridians is described as equivilent to that of earth in the 1950s. They have not yet invented the semiconductor or even the transistor and as a result they don’t have computers. However, their materials science is amazing and they can build just about anything from a simple raw material which is stronger than anything humans can build. They have robots. How can you have robots if you don’t have electronic processors?

There is one short episode back on earth where two brilliant scientists hook up and have a sexual relationship. It’s just a few pages of description, it’s pretty awkward and unrealistic, and it has nothing at all to do with the plot. Weir should have just left that part out.

Then there is the way Weir ended up on the mission. That was too dramatic and unrealistic, and he could have written the story without that twist and it would have been more credible. Yes, the amnesia he initially experienced after waking up would not be there, but so what. The story would have worked just as well.

But that’s all I could find that I had issues with. I like the science in this story, and the plot holes I described above are minor enough that I can accept them.

The description and depiction of the alien, however, is superb. The Eridians are the most realistic, credible, exotic and yet totally plausible aliens I have ever read about.

Movie Review: A Man Called Ove (2015)

Ove (Rolf Lassgård) is 59 years old and lives alone in a housing development somewhere in Sweden. He loses his job by a forced retirement program. His wife passed away from cancer six months before. He grieves badly and visits her grave every day. He has no relatives or children. He is the self-appointed master of the condominium association of his little community, even when he was ousted a few years before and his friend Rune was made president instead. He does not care about the official roles, and he rules with an iron fist. Daily rounds include checking for garage doors being locked, gates remaining closed. Driving of any type in the community is forbidden, and leaving a bicycle out is a serious infraction. He is a true curmudgeon and the essence of a grumpy old man.

Parvaneh and her family are refugees from somewhere in the Middle East. She has two children, one of them already school-age, and is pregnant with her next. Her husband is not quite handy with driving, cars, and anything mechanical. Ove has them in his sights immediately. They are very different from the Swedish bourgeoise society, and Ove does not like “different.”

Ove is ready to die and he attempts suicide, only to be interrupted by Parvaneh and her family. An unlikely friendship develops, and gradually he gets drawn back into a semblance of purpose.

This is a Swedish film with English subtitles, but it’s easy to follow along. The Swedish village, the gloomy weather, the way the communities are arranged, elicited eerie memories of my childhood in Germany. Things looked just like it. I also could not help but notice that Ove is 59 years old and I thought of him as an old man. Then I realized that I am five years older than Ove and it was a bit frightening. Please, let me not be like Ove.

A Man Called Ove is a well-crafted film about an ordinary man’s life from childhood to retirement. The film starts at the current time, and frequent flashbacks tell the story of how he became the Ove he is today. It’s a comedy of sorts, but it’s full of life’s truths and realities, and it’s an ode to the human spirit, to friendship, to kindness and to the circle of life.

Movie Review: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

William Kamkuamb is a 13-year-old boy in a farming village in the East African country of Malawi. The corrupt leadership of the nation not only exploits its citizenry, it undermines it. Survival for each family depends on the grain they grow. If a harvest fails, either due to a drought, or even due to a flood, there is simply not enough grain to go around to feed the families. Worse, the next crop is also in jeopardy because it takes grain to seed.

Families sit around their barrel of grain, count the number of of cups, divide how much they need by day, and they know how for how many days they can eat. If there is not enough to last until the next crop, they starve.

This is the kind of pressure we in the western world cannot even imagine.

William is a gifted student and very interested in applied physics. He has a reputation of being able to “fix things” around the village. His family has scraped up enough for a down payment for school. He attends as long as he can, before he gets kicked out for non-payment of tuition. But he is creative enough to talk his way into the library, where he finds a few books about electricity and generators.

He believes he can build a wind generator to drive the village water pump and start an irrigation system. Everyone thinks he is out of his mind, including his father.

But the boy’s spirit is steadfast, and he keeps his eyes on the goal. 

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is based on an autobiographical story. It brings the hardships of lives of people in rural Africa into our living rooms, and after watching the movie, you will not think about that light switch on your wall quite the same way anymore. It is truly inspiring.

I have not read the book that this movie is based on, but I have a review of the book  written by one of my readers. Please check it out here.

Book Review: A Column of Fire – by Ken Follett

In the late 1960s, when I was a school boy in Germany, I remember that the evening news, along with what was going on in Vietnam, often covered violence in Northern Ireland. Catholics and Protestants were always murdering each other in violent clashes, shootings and bombings. As a child, I could never understand why Christians would hate each other so much that they’d kill each other, year after year after year.

As a school boy in Bavaria I witnessed almost all my friends and school mates being Catholic. Everyone was Catholic in Bavaria, except a very few. Those who were not Catholic were called “die Evangelischen” which translates to our overall term “Protestant.” In a classroom of 30 to 40 students, there might be one or two Protestants, often none. We knew that, because there was mandatory religion class, where a religion teacher, usually a priest, would teach about religion. We had no choice but participate, except those kids that were Protestant. They were pulled out and went to some other study room, or had their own consolidated Protestant class, except there were so few of them in school that they would not be able to put  enough together to fill a classroom.

Bavarians were generally Catholic, and Protestants were the children of refugees. Refugees in Germany in the sixties always came from the east and were people who were displaced when the Russians closed in on Hitler in World War II. They spoke a very different dialect, so we could tell who they were, and they were usually Protestant.

As a kid, I never gave it much thought.

The book A Column of Fire deals with the subject of Catholicism and Protestantism in the sixteenth century in Europe and particularly in England. Queen Mary Stuart was a staunch Catholic, and Protestantism was against the law. Protestants were called heretics, and the inquisition, staffed by sadistic priests, had the power to accuse anyone of heresy, try them in “court” and burn them at the stake, if convicted. Accused heretics were tortured, like stretched until all four limbs were completely dislocated. Under such torture, most every accused person confessed to heresy, which ended the torture, but started the brutal execution, like being burned naked and alive while the public watched and the clergy looked on. Queen Mary, sometimes called “Bloody Mary” ordered hundreds of such executions of Protestants.

Reading about tortures, I also remembered that as a school boy, I once took a tour of the Regensburg Rathaus (the old town hall). One of the most memorable sights there was the Folterkammer (torture chamber).

I was in that torture chamber and was able to inspect the various implements. As a kid it didn’t affect me much, and I never thought about it. As it turned out, between the years 1533 and 1770, suspected sinners were asked to confess, and if they didn’t confess, they were shown the torture instruments, which I suspect made many of them change their minds. But the key point is, “freedom of religion” as we know it today, is a very recent invention, and just a few hundred years ago, in Germany, in England, and all over the world, if you lived in a predominantly Catholic country, the laws were such that if you were not Catholic, or if you worked against the church, you were a blasphemer or a heretic, and the punishment could easily be death, depending on the severity of the crime as determined by the inquisitor.

That does not mean only the Catholics were the barbarians.

When Queen Mary Stuart died, Queen Elizabeth I ascended to the throne of England. Elizabeth was a Protestant, and professed herself to be a moderate. She said she didn’t believe that people should be killed for their religion. Yes, the country was Protestant, and Catholicism was outlawed, but at least you weren’t summarily killed for it. However, since the Catholics were obsessed with their right, they felt Elizabeth was illegitimate as queen, and they tried various plots to kill her and give the throne to Mary, Queen of Scots – you guessed it – a Catholic.

The church and politics were completely intertwined, and the pope, his cardinals and bishops had as much power as the nobility and wielded it with a brutal hand.

A Column of Fire plays in the fictional town on Kingsbridge about 200 years after World Without End. It starts in 1558 in Kingsbridge and ends in 1620. It follows the lives of various prominent Kingsbridge residents as they do the bidding of famous historical figures, like Queen Mary Stuart, Mary Queen of Scots, King Filipe in Spain, King Henri in France, Sir Francis Drake, and many other historical figures of the time. A Column of Fire is the third book in the Kingsbridge trilogy, or the “Pillars Trilogy” as I have called it. You can read my other reviews here:

The Evening and the Morning – the prequel

Pillars of the Earth – book one

World Without End – book two

A Column of Fire – book three – this review

This is a historical novel about the Christian religion in its dark days. Reading it I am glad I live today, and I live in a country that prides itself of religious freedom – and I say that somewhat facetiously. Catholics and Protestants in the United States don’t kill each other (anymore), but I am not so sure whether all Jewish people and definitely Muslims in the United States today would agree that we have religious freedom. But if you want to learn first-hand what lack of religious freedom means, you should definitely read A Column of Fire.

I like Follett’s books because they make history come alive. It’s one thing to read in a history book that Martin Luther didn’t like what the Catholics were doing and wanted to reform the church, but the Catholics didn’t approve of that. That’s dry, that’s history lectures in school with no context. It’s another thing to be inside the head of a young woman in Paris who sells copies of the Bible in French or English, which were printed clandestinely, and the penalty for being discovered selling illegal books was death. Yes, the Catholic church banned bibles in languages other than Latin and the penalty for violating that rule was death. The Catholic church has, in all its history, actively worked on keeping the people uneducated, so it could wields its power over them and essentially extract money from them for its own enrichment. I may seem on a rant, and off topic now, against the Catholic church, but not really. A Column of Fire brings the power or the church in the 16th century to life in front of your eyes.

This is a very long book with 919 pages and it takes time to read. But it was time well-spent. I am now going to have to read a biography of Martin Luther, as I am embarrassed to say, I know only very rudimentary facts about him and his life and work. I need to fill in that blank. I have also concluded that I need to find a historical novel that plays during the crusades, another time in history that warrants better understanding, and I suspect I will learn more about atrocities committed by the church.

The third American colony was started in New England by the passengers of the Mayflower in 1620. It was in the context of the political structure in England described in A Column of Fire that these first pilgrims stepped onto the Mayflower in search of religious freedom, and now I understand how and why that happened.

Movie Review: Hillbilly Elegy

In 1997, J.D. is a young boy living the Appalachians in Jackson, Kentucky. He is bullied by his peers and emotionally abused by his mother (Amy Adams), who is a druggie. His grandma (Glenn Close) rules the family.

When J.D. grows up he joins the Marines and later goes to law school at Yale on the G.I. Bill. He works very hard on getting his life together and breaking the cycle of poverty and lack of education. He has a supportive girl friend in Boston and is looking forward to his life ahead, freed from the shackles of his hillbilly upbringing.

But things were never right back home, and when his mom is delivered to a hospital after a heroin overdose, he drives back to Southern Ohio to take care of her.

Hillbilly Elegy is a Ron Howard film, based on J.D. Vance’s best-selling memoir of the same name. It was blasted by the critics and received only 26% on the Tomatometer, but surprisingly with an audience score of 86%. The critics call it terrible, trite, enforcing of stereotypes, deceiving with an Oscar-baiting narrative, an episode of Jerry Springer, and one of the worst movies of the year.

I disagree vehemently, I guess I don’t count as a critic, but audience. Glenn Close and Amy Adams are doing a remarkable job. J.D.’s grandma is a character made of real-life, below-middle-class people in rural America. I have known many people like that, and it took me home. J.D. is a smart boy who broke out of the cycle of poverty entirely by himself and the savvy counsel of his grandma. I found the movie educational and inspiring.

If you want to understand the soul and the plight of backwater America, watching Hillbilly Elegy is a treasure trove. It explains things.

Damn the critics. Watch this movie!

Movie Review: The Life Ahead

Madame Rosa (Sofia Loren at age 85!) is an Auschwitz survivor who lives somewhere in a seaside city in Italy and runs a business taking care of the children of prostitutes. She reluctantly takes in a 12-year-old Muslim African orphan at the begging of her doctor, who is also the counselor for the Social Services Department that takes care of street kids.

Momo (Ibrahima Gueye) is from Senegal, and is streetwise beyond his age. He robs strangers in the market, and he is a drug dealer under the wings of an adult gang lord. At first, as one would expect, he does not fit into Madame Rosa’s household, with the other kids who live there, and with the adults around him.

But Momo is smart and resourceful, and quickly he turns from victim to protector as he learns the hard lessons of life earlier than a 12-year-old should. As quickly as he calls Madama Rosa’s world his home and family, it starts crumbling around him.

The Life Ahead is in Italian with English subtitles. The director, Edoardo Ponti, is Sofia Loren’s son. The movie was made for Netflix during the 2020 pandemic.

The Life Ahead is completely carried by the two lead actors, Sofia Loren with her powerful presence, and the amazing talent of Ibrahima Gueye.

Here in America we are so inundated with our Hollywood movie formula, we’re not used to hearing other languages and exotic sound tracks, playing in locales that look foreign to us. The challenges of a 12-year-old black orphan from Senegal on the streets of a city in Italy are beyond our everyday comprehension. The movie may not present a culture clash for viewers in Italy, but in our American living rooms, they give us powerful jolts of realities we can’t even comprehend.

After the credits started rolling, I was mesmerized. I listened to the music until it was all done.

I owed it that.

Movie Review: Rambo: First Blood

I have mentioned the movie Rambo: First Blood many times in this blog over the years. Just search for the keyword and you can find the various posts. The first time was all the way back in 2008, when I listed it as one of Three Timeless Movies. But I never gave it the honor of a review in all that time.

Rambo came out in 1982. It was based on the 1972 novel First Blood by David Morrell. John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is a returned Vietnam veteran who is drifting in the Pacific Northwest while looking for a buddy from he war. When he finally finds his home he learns that he had died of cancer a year before. Rambo learns he is the last survivor of his group of Green Berets, and he is devastated. He walks into the nearest town when the local Sheriff picks him up and immediately starts pushing him around. He eventually gets wrongfully arrested and abused by the small-town police force. Triggered by flashbacks of torture, his instincts take over, he overwhelms the untrained cops, and escapes the jail with nothing but the clothes on his back and a knife. As they chase him into the woods they quickly realize that they are not hunting him, he is hunting them.

Consistent with the cliché of what we’re expecting Rambo to be, we find a one-man army with nothing but a knife facing hundreds of local cops, state police, national guard and military all trying to contain him. One of the famous quotes of the movie is “Don’t push it or I’ll give you a war you won’t believe.” And exactly that he does.

There is a lot of shooting and brutal attacks in the story, but despite his notorious reputation, Rambo doesn’t actually kill anyone in First Blood. He just severely wounds and disables many people trying to hunt him down.

After Rambo: First Blood in 1982, there were many sequels. Rambo does a lot of killing in those. The franchise went on with Rambo: First Blook Part II, which Reagan saw and was famously recorded saying “Boy, after seeing ‘Rambo’ last night, I know what to do the next time this happens,” which was picked up by microphones placed in his office for a television and radio speech in 1985 but not carried in the broadcast.

Rambo: First Blood, in my opionion, is a surprisingly good movie. It’s a good innocent hero versus very bad cops story, where the hero kicks ass, gets justice, but eventually goes out with a whimper and the audience gets to feel good.

All other Rambo movies that followed it are no comparison at all, not even in the same league.

I watched Rambo: Last Blood a couple of days ago, and that prompted me watch Rambo: First Blood again and finally write the review it deserves, 38 years after it first came out.



Here is a good summary and review on Reddit with some excellent comments.

Movie Review: The Irishman


Based on the non-fiction book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, the movie The Irishman shows Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), an Irish-American who lives in Philadelphia, tell his life story. The Martin Scorsese movie is three and a half hours long. So make sure you have ample time before sitting down for this one, or split it into two nights.

The story starts when Frank Sheeran, a World War II veteran, is in a wheelchair in a nursing home, telling the story of how he started out as a truckdriver delivering meat, to becoming a hit man for the Bufalino crime family, led by Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and a friend and confidante of Teamsters Union president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

The Irishman leads us through a few turbulent decades of American history and the mob’s involvement. Particularly the Kennedy Administration, how Kennedy got elected, Bobby Kennedy’s role, and eventually even Nixon are involved in the plot. Most of all, it gives deep insight into the thinking of the mob and the unions, and it’s not a pretty picture.

The acting is superb. Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel and Ray Romano are at their very best. We have not one superstar actor in this film, but half a dozen of them, all doing an exemplary job.

The Irishman is shocking, exhausting to watch, long and drawn out, but hugely educational, and a history lesson.

I never knew much about Jimmy Hoffa, other than I knew that he was a union figure, and there was a movie about him (Hoffa, 1992, with Jack Nicholson). Now I know a lot more about Hoffa, and I’ll have to watch that movie too.

The Irishman is 209 minutes long, and 209 minutes worth watching.

Movie Review: The Two Popes

The Two Popes is a dramatization of what happened in 2013, when Pope Benedict VI (Anthony Hopkins) was the first pope to resign in over 700 years. Benedict was a conservative and, in religious aspects, a hardliner. He was elected during a time when Catholicism was under immense internal pressure and change.

Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) would eventually become Pope Francis, Pope Benedict’s successor. But he didn’t know that in 2012, when he traveled to Rome to submit his request to retire. He was one of Pope Benedict’s harshest critics and an activist in the church.

The Two Popes tells the life story of Jorge Bergoglio through the framework of the conversations between the two men over two days in Rome. The unlikely pair of adversaries became friends, and the rest is history.

Joseph Ratzinger, who would eventually become Pope Benedict, taught at the University of Regensburg in Germany in 1969, about the same time I was a school boy learning Latin in Regensburg. During one of my visits there a decade ago, when he was pope, I went to find his house in Pentling, right outside of Regensburg and just a few kilometers from the university. It’s an unassuming place, mostly behind a tall and grown-over wall of ivy and green. I never knew about him when he was active in Regensburg and later Munich as bishop, of course, and only studied up on him when he became der Bayerische Papst (the Bavarian Pope).

I am not a Catholic, and I am not a Christian, but I thoroughly enjoyed watching The Two Popes. Other than the doctrine and the thinking of Pope Benedict, I didn’t learn much about him. But I learned the entire history of Pope Francis, and while I have criticized him for many of the decisions he has made and the atrocities of the church that he has allowed to continue, I have gathered renewed respect for him through this movie.

And I feel solidarity: If I were pope, I would shun the red shoes too.